Do Gyms Really Need Machines?

First, you must understand that the brain recognizes movement patterns and not simply muscle groups.  Yet, many professionals are still stuck in isolation training or muscle group training. ~Gray Cook, PT, co-founder of Functional Movement Systems.

In a typical, modern American gym, you may see rows of treadmills, elliptical trainers, and other machines that is supposed to improve cardiovascular fitness and increase your metabolism. The same can be said about strength machines that isolate different body parts and move them primarily in one direction–often from a seated position. Even with free weights, people tend to exercise with a singularity mindset where they focus on one body part or muscle group, thinking that they will get stronger, faster, or move better.

However, your mind doesn’t recognize body parts or function in isolation. It recognizes patterns. When you learn to dance, do you focus on what muscles or joints you are using, or do you learn the steps and maintain your posture? When you learn to punch or kick in karate, do you focus on which muscles you should use or train, or do you learn the patterns of movement and your breathing?

To understand this concept better, see if you can read this message.

The same can be said about movement. How did we wind up in this machine-orient, musclehead mentality in the fitness industry? A little history first.

After the American Civil War in 1865, American physical education was mostly  influenced by three European cultures: Russia, Germany, and Sweden. Although the activities and exercises were based on military training, the physical culture–or the strongman culture–evolved during the late 19th century and trickled into the general public. Classical strongmen include Eugene Sandow, Arthur Saxon, and Charles Atlas, who performed feats of strength and posed near-nude to display the beauty and grace of the human body. Unlike modern bodybuilders and fitness models, most classical strongmen did not emphasize their chest, arms, or six-pack abs. They emphasized and valued more on body symmetry and movement.

Gymnasiums in early 20th-century America had a lot of open spaces with climbing ropes and ladders hanging from the ceilings, freeweights (clubbells, kettlebells, dumbbells), parallel bars, Olympic rings, and various gymnastic equipment.

Participants performed various activities, exercises, and drills that involved the entire body, often from a standing position and moving in various planes of motion.

By learning to move freely and with control, participants learn to overcome weaknesses and mistakes with their own body weight and within their own limitations. Even women participated in such activities. Here is “Curves For Women” in the 1900s. Where are the machines where you sit and isolate body parts?

Now compare this with the typical, modern gym.

What are the differences? Is the human body and mind designed to move in isolation from a supported position? Where is the mindfulness and engagement? Where is the creativity?

How can this system improve movement when most of us spend about 8-12 hours a day sitting?

In terms of costs, each machine–depending on the brand, model, and complexity–can cost between $100-$3000 USD. That is ONE machine for ONE body part for ONE movement. Is this cost effective and a wise use of space and energy?

Could we perform the same exercises and improve movement, mind-body engagement, and strength by using these simple tools? The cost of one $1000 machine is equivalent to 20 pairs of clubbells, twenty 30 to 40-lb. kettlebells, or fifty 6 to 8-lb. medicine balls. There is no need for electricity, no maintenance, and they allow you to explore different movement patterns while exercising.

Can we can foster an environment where people can exercise and explore possibilities with games and movement free from judgment and criticism? Can we support more eco-friendly exercise facilities that can make better use of space, raw materials, energy, and costs?

Gyms can still profit from this model of training. It is a matter of educating the public, marketing, hiring quality coaches and trainers, and having a supportive environment for personal growth. The general public may not readily accept this type of old-school training, but with setting examples, teaching our young generations, and develop communities where great minds with an ethical and giving mindset can we help solve many of our country’s health problems.

Thank you Dr. Ed Thomas of Iowa State Physical Education for lending me these pictures.

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6 Responses to “Do Gyms Really Need Machines?”
  1. Josh Conway says:

    Fantastic synopsis of the state of movement affairs. Share to our FB and community. Move your body, not a machine!

  2. I agree to some extent, there is nothin worse than mind numbing boring exercise which is why so many gyms have TV screens or music to keep you occupied. However, I do think there is a place for machines and other equipment, particularly when it comes to cardiovascular exercise in poor whether conditions and limited space. Also the use of machines has helped beginners take up exercise when balance posture and strength are issues that the use of free weights needs to focus on. Better to get someone started on a machine and encourage them to move into free weights once the bug has bitten

    • Hi Tracy. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

      There is indeed a place for machines, and there are several products from Keiser and FreeMotion that augments movement pattern training with other modalities. The key is not to debate whether machines, free weights, bodyweights, etc. are better than the other. Th key is to consider the principles of human movement, human behavior, rehab, and other factors that influences how we move. The clients’ or patients’ goals, behavior, and perception should always be considered. Instead of following a protoccol, understand the person first, and then execute a program or system to meet their needs.

      Sometimes we have to consider which started the problem, such as pain or poor posture. Is the pain or movement dysfunction causing poor posture or is poor posture causing the pain and dysfunction? Physical therapist Gray Cook and fitness professional Paul Chek have discussed this chicken and the egg dilemma for the last 10 years, and it challenges how we should think when working and assessing our clients. In your case scenario, is it the seated, isolated machine modality causing poor posture and dysfunction or is it the poor posture and dysfunction causing poor movement patterns and those need to be addressed first? It’s a challenging perspective to take on, even for myself, after working in this field since 2001.

      Please feel free to share your ideas and thoughts. I appreciate it. Thanks again, Tracy.


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